Friday, January 13, 2017

Orion Weiss plays Brahms, COSB does Bartók and Kódaly

Orion Weiss

Chamber Orchestra of the South Bay
Norris Theatre, Palos Verdes Performing Arts

Any program-builder intent on including either of the Brahms piano concertos in a concert faces a somewhat different challenge from that posed by almost all other concertos. Basically, both are so huge that the fallback formula of overture/concerto, with a symphony following the interval, or variants thereon, would result in either an unacceptably long total program or a second half most likely to seem trivial or anticlimactic after the mighty first half.

Unsurprisingly therefore, Frances Steiner, Music Director of the Chamber Orchestra of the South Bay,  made Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor the sole item in the latter part of the orchestra’s first concert of 2017 last Sunday evening in Palos Verdes, and she met the challenge of the necessarily brief first half in a pretty interesting way. She solved it – perhaps with Brahms’ affection for Hungarian dances in the back of her mind – by juxtaposing responses to their native folk music by two of the 20th century’s greatest Hungarian composers, Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kódaly.

Both were assiduous field researchers and collectors of old Magyar folk melodies, and in many of their concert works were influenced by and sometimes incorporated folk elements. The two examples played at this concert, however, were starkly contrasted in style and content. Bartók’s six Romanian Folk Dances take just about that many minutes to perform, such plain and unvarnished transcriptions are they, even in the version for a small orchestra of winds and strings that he made two years after the original 1915 set for piano. 

On the other hand, Kódaly’s 1933 Dances of Galánta, for a larger but still relatively modest orchestra, amount almost to a romantic tone poem, with the five sections integrated into a single continuous whole, much richer harmonies, and orchestral color heightened by some judicious percussion. Neither treatment of the folk sources can be described as “right” or “wrong”, but the bare-bones effect of the Bartók was accentuated by tempi choices that seemed to me a little slow (at least until the final “Fast Dance”) and was further emphasized, not in a good way, by the excessively dry acoustic of the Norris Theatre. The Kódaly, on the other hand, went with a will, with the orchestra by now settled in and delivering plenty of impact under Ms Steiner’s direction.

Back when I first began to get an idea of what goes on “under the hood” of orchestral performance, one of my biggest surprises was to find that Brahms achieves the seismic roar and epic flourishes that open his first piano concerto not with some vast instrumental array (think Mahler) but by an orchestra barely larger, by a single pair of horns, than Haydn used in his last symphonies. So with this in mind it was not necessarily inappropriate – though still somewhat surprising – to find a chamber orchestra accompanying Orion Weiss in a performance of this grandest of concertos (at least in the standard repertoire). The crucial thing, though, is how Brahms scores this opening, with a blast from all four horns in octaves over a rumble of double basses, violas and timpani, and the drama then unfolding in grand strides by most of the remainder of the orchestra above that firm fortissimo foundation. CD owners are used to the sound of the world’s great symphony orchestras in this music, with eight or even more double basses providing bedrock underpinning to the other strings in proportion above; how would the far smaller numbers of the COSB fare?

The two best double basses in the world could not match what, say, the LAPO could muster, but the pair of COSB players did their best, and it was notable that the accompanying timpani roll, which could so easily have drowned out everybody else, was scaled back to maintain overall orchestral balance. Given also the auditorium’s unforgiving acoustic, it was as good as one could reasonably expect, and once Mr Weiss joined the proceedings with the piano’s first entry, so seemingly tentative yet so pregnant with foreboding, the success of the performance was assured. 

I have enjoyed many concerts by this pianist at the annual summer Festivals of Music at Bard College in upper New York State, but there he was almost always either playing solo, or with a chamber group or his wife (the equally talented Anna Polonsky), and most often in rare repertoire. This was my first experience of Weiss in one of the major challenges of the core concerto repertoire, and it was as much a joy as hearing him elucidate, say, a set of Bartók Bagatelles or Atterberg’s chamber arrangement of his Sixth Symphony (to mention just two past pleasures). His playing on this occasion was variously powerful, crisply articulated and sensitive as Brahms requires. I for one hope to see Weiss back in this part of this side of the continent, and soon.

As is customary with the COSB concerts, this one was preceded by a preview talk from Stephen Richards, illustrated with recorded examples from all three works, for which it was well worth making a point of arriving in time. 


Sunday, January 8, 2017, 8 p.m.; pre-concert talk 7.15 p.m.
Photo credit: Orion Weiss

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